The rest of the iceberg

March 9, 2014

My piece on the cybercrime law — whose title was abbreviated by the editors to “Rest of iceberg” — came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Talk of the Town section this Sunday, March 9, 2014. I am posting the original, longer version of the article here, and retaining the slightly longer title as well.

Much of the online outrage that came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the now landmark case of Disini v. Secretary of Justice (probably more popularly known to the public as the “cybercrime case”) was directed at the portion of the ruling upholding the constitutionality of Section 4(c)4 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act (RA 10175) – the “cyberlibel” provision.

This is not surprising, considering that from the outset, this provision on cyberlibel has been the most vociferously condemned feature of the law, with academics, civil rights lawyers, journalists, and ordinary netizens all coming together to bewail its deleterious effects on free speech online. The fact that Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III — not exactly everyone’s favorite member of the Senate — subsequently admitted to inserting the provision at a late stage of the bill’s deliberations in Congress, only added further to the notoriety of the provision.

Even the three dissenting members of the Court, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio, and Associate Justice Marvic F. Leonen, all focused their dissents mainly on the question of cyberlibel and the related libel provision in the Revised Penal Code.

But while the cyberlibel question is indisputably significant, it is definitely not the only item of concern in relation to free speech, particularly within the relatively new terrain of cyberspace, in the Cybercrime Prevention Act. The seemingly innocuous Section 6, which transplants provisions of the Revised Penal Code into the Cybercrime Prevention Act, so long as they are committed “by, through, and with the use of communication and information technologies,” is potentially an even more insidious threat to online speech than cyberlibel, yet, thus far, it has sailed largely unscathed through the storms of protest that came in the wake of both the law’s enactment and it’s “ratification” by the Supreme Court in Disini.

Section 6 is phrased simply enough:

All crimes defined and penalized by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, if committed by, through and with the use of information and communications technologies shall be covered by the relevant provisions of this Act: Provided, That the penalty to be imposed shall be one (1) degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, as the case may be.

It is perhaps because of this deceptively simple phrasing of the provision that its far reaching implications, which go well beyond just the issue of libel, have been mostly overlooked. In the majority decision in Disini, the ponente, Associate Justice Roberto A. Abad, devotes a single, somewhat dismissive, paragraph to discussing Section 6, saying that the provision “merely makes the commission of existing crimes through the internet a qualifying circumstance.” And while CJ Sereno devotes a significant part of her dissent to discussing Section 6, she dwells more on the how the higher penalty mandated in the provision, again taken solely in relation to libel, creates a heavier “chilling effect” on free speech.

To my mind, there are at least two problems with Section 6 that were not substantially taken up either in the main decision, or in the dissenting opinions.

The first is a matter actually touched on during the oral arguments when Justice Carpio asked counsel for petitioners, my colleague in the House of Representatives, Neri Colmenares, if it is required for cyberlibel to exist that the computer system used be connected to the Internet. Carpio’s point was the expansive phrase “by, through and with the use of information and communications technologies” used in Section 6 seemingly allowed for application of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, and the higher penalty under Section 6, to a libellous article merely written using a computer, without necessarily transmitting or uploading the same online. Unfortunately, petitioners were unable to further develop this point, which I feel is a key issue with regard to the entire law.

The crux of this particular matter is that by treating the use of “information and communications technologies,” — an exceedingly broad term that is not even defined and delimited in the law itself — as a qualifying circumstance to all crimes defined and penalized under the Revised Penal Code, it opens the floodgates to a slew of prosecutions under Section 6 that have nothing to do with cyberspace.

For instance, using your cellphone to send threatening text messages to your ex-girlfriend’s new suitor, mislead random strangers into thinking that they’ve “won” a cash prize and will get it provided they pay a “management fee,” or inform your fellow burglars that the security guards by the backdoor of the warehouse have walked on, can now all be potentially penalized as “cyber-threats,” “cyber-estafa,” and “cyber-robbery” respectively.

And as more and more, we come to rely on our mobile phones, laptops, tablets, google glasses, and – who knows, eventually – surgically implanted computer chips, for the things we do in our daily lives, at some point, it is conceivable that all crimes will be “cybercrimes” due to the broad phrasing of Section 6. And remember, they will all be subject to the higher penalty prescribed in the provision.

The second problem is more specific, and relates to other provisions of the Revised Penal Code that have potentially suppressive effects on free speech, and that have been “imported” into the Cybercrime Prevention Act again through Section 6.

The most glaring example here is Article 142 of the Revised Penal Code, which defines the crime of inciting to sedition. This punishes any person —

who, without taking any direct part in the crime of sedition, should incite others to the accomplishment of any of the acts which constitute sedition, by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, cartoons, banners, or other representations tending to the same end, or upon any person or persons who shall utter seditious words or speeches, write, publish, or circulate scurrilous libels against the Government of the Philippines, or any of the duly constituted authorities thereof, or which tend to disturb or obstruct any lawful officer in executing the functions of his office, or which tend to instigate others to cabal and meet together for unlawful purposes, or which suggest or incite rebellious conspiracies or riots, or which lead or tend to stir up the people against the lawful authorities or to disturb the peace of the community, the safety and order of the Government, or who shall knowingly conceal such evil practices.

This provision is adopted from the 1901 Sedition Law, or Act No. 292, promulgated by the United States colonial government to deter uprisings by the newly conquered Filipinos and punish all those critical of the government. A cursory reading of the text shows that it is deliberately designed to be broadly worded and conveniently vague – the crime is committed if “seditious words” are uttered, or words which “tend” to instigate others to meet or cabal, or which “suggest” rebellious conspiracies.

This is not surprising, as the Sedition Law was really intended as a draconian instrument to clamp down on dissent and protest during a particularly restive period in our history. Sadly, it has persisted in our statute books up to the present, and has been used by Presidents such as Ferdinand Marcos and, more recently, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to crack down on their critics and political opponents.

Still, it is apparent that Article 142, which should have long been struck down as a clear infringement on free speech, is now given a new, more potent existence through Section 6 of the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

Tweeting or posting on Facebook a statement calling the government “dirty,” a “dictatorship,” or “shameful,” will likely subject the hapless netizen to a prosecution for “cyber-sedition” as these are all invectives that the Supreme Court, in the 1951 case of Espuelas v. People, have deemed as seditious utterances. In fact, according to the same case, unless the criticism is “specific and therefore constructive, reasoned or tempered, and not a contemptuous condemnation of the entire government set-up,” then it is punishable under Article 142.

Browsing through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can just imagine how many potential “cyber-seditionists” there are, courtesy of Section 6 in relation to Article 142.                

Another example is Article 133, which should still be fresh in our memory in relation to the Carlos Celdran “Damaso” case. This provision that is yet another archaic, outdated throwback to colonial times, but which, for some inexplicable reason, continues to persist in our penal code, penalizes “anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”

Setting aside the venue and timing element – although, with ICT being what it is, how can you really say that you did not post, tweet, email, or text while a religious ceremony, somewhere was taking place – the phrase “notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful” has tremendous potential for taking to task for “cyber blasphemy” all those pro-RH people who clutter our online spaces with calls to implement the reproductive health law. I have a friend who makes a habit of debating die-hard religious nuts online, and I suppose now I have to warn him that he is now potentially opening himself up to potential criminal prosecution under the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

Finally, there is the second paragraph of Article 287, which penalizes “unjust vexation” with a nominal fine and imprisonment of up to 30 days. While seemingly innocuous, even trivial, this provision becomes potent when fused with Section 6 since it will potentially allow criminal prosecutions, which can result in a penalty of up to six (6) months imprisonment, for any vexing, irritating, annoying statement posted online. And really, on a regular day, how many annoying posts do you see on your newsfeed? Post an acerbic comment about all those selfies your friend uploads, and, thanks to Section 6, you may be looking at six months in Bilibid. Of course, you can jump the gun and sue him for his annoying selfies, “cyber-vexing” can, after all, cut both ways.

Ultimately, the problem with Section 6 is that it transplants wholesale hundreds of crimes from an 82-year old law – many of which were in turn adopted from laws enacted centuries earlier – and attempts to adopt them to the completely new, completely different terrain of cyberspace. There are bound to be problems in applying restrictions crafted in colonial times to the free-wheeling discussions on Facebook or the Twitterverse.

It is justified to be concerned about cyberlibel. But we should not forget, that it is an issue that is, very much, just the tip of a very large, very heavy iceberg.


Towards an HIV/AIDS-free society

December 3, 2013

Privilege speech I delivered yesterday, 2 December 2013, at the House of Representatives.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak before this House, to both commemorate and call to action.

Yesterday, December 1, marked the 25th year of the observance of World AIDS Day.

I know many of our colleagues may wonder, why talk about HIV/AIDS now, when so many other concerns, some perhaps more urgent or compelling, face our nation and this Congress? In the face of issues concerning PDAF – or the absence thereof, post-Yolanda reconstruction, climate change policy, and the continuing campaign against poverty, it is tempting to brush aside the issue of HIV/AIDS and to consider it as “not a priority.”

But it is precisely this attitude of relative indifference that has brought us to the alarming juncture where we are today, where 25 years after the global community has declared an all-out campaign to combat HIV/AIDS and 15 years after we enacted our own AIDS prevention law, the increase in reported cases of HIV/AIDS has hit terrifying figures – 4,072 new cases since January of this year, 491 cases in October alone, out of the 15,774 total cases reported since 1984. That means 25.8% of all HIV/AIDS cases in the last three decades were reported in the first ten months of this year.  

I therefore rise this afternoon not only to join the rest of the world in commemorating World AIDS Day but also to talk about some of the urgent issues related to HIV/AIDS that I believe we must take up.

This time presents us with the opportunity to examine our substantial progress in the battle against the HIV and AIDS pandemic and to reaffirm our commitment to achieving an HIV/AIDS-free society. We also remember those we have lost, encourage those who continue to suffer, and lend support to their family and friends who, in many cases unfortunately, continue to bear the unfair and misguided discrimination of society.

The year 1998 marked the beginning of our country’s declaration of war against the disease with the passage of RA 8504, also known as, The Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, a national comprehensive plan of preventing the spread of the disease within the populace. It outlined the necessary tools and strategy needed by the government to prevent the occurrence of new infections, control its transmissions, make available the necessary care and treatment to the victims and protect the rights of the HIV/AIDS victims and key populations at higher risk to the infection. A coordinated national response against the disease was also established through the creation of the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC).

In the 15 years since the enactment of the AIDS law, government worked to elevate the nation’s awareness of the disease, supported studies that aimed to reduce its transmission, and built ties with various NGOs, community groups, and international agencies to help curb the increasing trend of infections. The 1998 AIDS Law intended to curb and stabilize the spread of HIV and AIDS in the country was, in fact, hailed as “best practice” by the international community.

In addition, as signatory to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (UNMDG), we made a commitment to halt the spread of HIV infection and to begin reducing its incidence in the country by 2015.

In the global arena, UNAIDS reports show that 95% out of 186 countries are on track with their MDG on HIV/AIDS. This marked a pivotal juncture in the worldwide effort of curbing and halting the spread of the disease. There has been a downward global trend in new cases of HIV/AIDS victims at the turn of the millennium, as 77 countries had either stabilized or reduced HIV infections within their territories—an indicator that the world may soon make the zero-infections, zero-deaths and zero-discrimination UN political declaration on HIV/AIDS an achievable reality.

These positive developments in the global arena, unfortunately, are not reflective of the current state of affairs in our country. Despite the 1998 law, and the efforts undertaken in pursuit of its goals, a triumph against HIV/AIDS is not yet within sight, as number of new HIV infections continue to expand rapidly. When the AIDS bill was enacted in 1998, HIV/AIDS victims were numbered at 189. This figure was more than doubled by 2008 as recorded cases reached a total of 528. By 2012, HIV/AIDS reached a staggering total of 3,338 cases.

Prior to 2008, HIV prevalence in the Philippines was considered “low and slow”, with only one new HIV infection being reported per day. Five years after, the tide has completely turned. HIV prevalence has now become “fast and furious”. In August of this year, reported new HIV cases increased to 16 per day, or 1 new case per 1.5 hour. This means that by the time this assemblage is adjourned at 7PM, there will be 13 new reported cases of HIV infection, with 2 new cases being reported as we conduct this session.

The radical upward surge on the HIV/AIDS situation in the country, thus, requires that we bring this issue to the forefront of the Congressional agenda.

Accomplishing the goal of an AIDS-free society requires us to reconfigure our knowledge and understanding of the subject, scrutinize the emerging trends and developing dynamics within the population afflicted with HIV/AIDS and craft an up-to-date effective prevention and control response which takes into account the experiences of the last 15 years.

As I mentioned earlier, within this year alone, a total of 4,072 HIV/AIDS cases were already recorded. This is 40% higher compared to last year’s figure of the same period and a thousandfold increase since the enactment of the AIDS law. Health experts have explained that the massive jump of infections is due to low use of condoms, multiple sexual partnerships among key populations at higher risk to infections, and unregulated sharing of needles among people with injecting drugs (PWID). Unprotected sex, in particular, doubles a person’s likelihood of contracting HIV and unregulated needle-sharing has become a major cause of transmission for the disease.

A closer look on the epidemic situation in the country reveals shifting trends and changing dynamics in the demographics of people affected by the disease. Out of the recorded four thousand plus HIV/AIDS cases this year, a hugely disproportionate distribution was apparent, in terms of geographic, gender and age. A huge concentration of the victims now are the young generation, belonging to the 20-29 year age bracket, predominantly male (95% of the total cases) and they are found mostly in NCR, Region 7 and 4A (Manila, Davao and Angeles, Pampanga). HIV prevalence within these regions are pegged at 5% or higher—surpassing the HIV prevalence within the general population. They are now flagged as priority areas that are in dire need of focused intervention on prevention, treatment, care and protection. Manila, for one, is of particular concern as it accounts for more than 50% of the total number of new HIV cases recorded this year.

Although sexual contact remains the dominant mode of virus-transmission, its main drivers have now changed faces. Prior to the turn of the millennium, females were considered the main drivers of the disease: specifically, those engaged in sex trade. Recent studies made by the Department of Health and various other international agencies reveal, however, that males having sex with other males (MSMs) now predominate. They comprise 80% of the total number of HIV cases in the country.

According to government epidemiologists, if nothing is done to address and reverse the existing conditions, HIV cases are projected at an all-time high of 45,000 by 2015. This bleak prediction should urge us to step up our game and meet the demands of the developing dynamics and changing conditions that continue to encourage the spread of the disease.

The fact that the disease afflicts less than one percent (<1%) of the general population should not deter us. We should not let the number fool us into treating this issue with a great degree of political comfort and complacency. Instead, this should challenge us to take firm actions to prevent the disease from becoming a full blown pandemic, as has happened in many countries. Prevention is better than cure, but for diseases such as HIV and AIDS that has irreversible infections and with no discovered cure, prevention is the cure.

The government has made progresses in areas such as: providing wider access to anti-retroviral treatment (ART), a treatment used to slow down the progress of HIV in the body to victims and the highly at-risk population; investments were placed on research aimed at reducing the spread of the disease; and, leveling up of the peoples’ knowledge of the disease were undertaken. The manner of discourse, however, is largely saddled by our country’s traditional values and culture. These considerations continue to prevent an open debate and discussion of the issue in the public arena, thus, limiting peoples’ understanding of the issue.

The continuing stigma and discrimination against HIV/AIDS victims and their family has also greatly hampered the achievement of a future that is AIDS-free. The shame, guilt, fear of alienation, discrimination and other perverse repercussions that come along with being identified with the disease pushes victims to hide their conditions, not seek treatment or disclose their status to their partners—thereby, increasing the likelihood of the spread of the disease.

I remember reading a news report back in 2010 about Rolly (not his real name), a person living with HIV, who worked as a dancer in a bar. In the article, he recounted the painful ordeal he encountered due to his condition. He related how, at his workplace, people living with HIV/AIDS like him were locked inside a room and those who served them food would kick it under the door. They were treated like outcasts. For people like them, discrimination and stigma is a harsh reality they have to live on every day. Another report published in 2008 told of the horrific experience by a family in Olongapo, who, after it was discovered that one of their family members was HIV positive, woke up to find a their house on fire. It was later found out that their neighbors, afraid of possibly catching the virus carried by their family member, colluded to torch their tiny hut.

Faced with an impending death, a hostile and discriminating society, it seems the story of ‘Rolly’ aptly describes the experience of living with AIDS—that the discrimination from the society against HIV/AIDS victims can be much more painful and fatal more than the virus itself.

We have made significant progress in other areas of our development goals. This time, let us channel this nation’s creativity in the serious fight against HIV/AIDS making good of our commitment in eliminating HIV/AIDS in our society. Let us ensure that no infections occur due to lack of information, or worse, misinformation, no death due to lack of treatment and no discrimination due to lack of understanding and compassion.

The nation must be equipped with the necessary information that will guide them to stay healthy and avoid the infection. Enough funding should be made available to aid the health sector provide the necessary quality and accessible prevention, treatment, care and support services to people living with HIV/AIDS and to those who are highly at-risk of contracting the virus.

It is time to open the debate and discussion of the issue in the public arena. There is a need to break the myths and misconceptions that surround the disease, which, consequently, breed stigma and discrimination from the society.

That is why, earlier today, I, with two other members of this distinguished House, the Honorable Teddy Brawner Baguilat of the Lone District of Ifugao, and the Honorable Lani Mercado-Revilla of the 2nd District of Cavite, did our small part in attempting to lift the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS by undergoing voluntary HIV testing at the free clinic currently set up at the House of Representatives medical building. The clinic will be open for three days, and I urge all of you, my esteemed colleagues, to take the test, if only to show to our constituents and fellow Filipinos that there is nothing to fear, or to be ashamed of, insofar as these crucial preventive practices relating to HIV/AIDS are concerned.

The issue of HIV and AIDS is one that is not, and will never be, an exclusive topic that is reserved for the victims, their families and their friends. It is our issue too, as a nation and as a country striving for inclusive economic growth and development. It is our moral obligation and common mission to ensure that, in our journey toward progress, no one is left behind — not the poor, not the sick, not the old, not the weak. We should not let anyone fall between the gaps and inadequacies that characterize several of our laws and institutions. And to be willing and ready to lend a hand those who do.

I hope, my dear colleagues, that we will take up this challenge.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and good afternoon.


Akbayan to Aquino: Abolish the Pork

August 19, 2013

Akbayan Partylist today called on President Benigno Simeon Aquino III to immediately and without conditions abolish the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) following the shocking revelations in the recent COA audit on the heels of the P 10 Billion Napoles-pork barrel scam. The progressive-coalition partner of Aquino said that the pork barrel is “incompatible with the President’s reform agenda.”

“We call on President Aquino to support us in our call for the total and unconditional abolition ofthe pork barrel system. This is a system that has been exposed time and again as a tool of patronage politics aimed to foment elite rule through political dependence,” Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello said.

 

Incompatible with good governance

“We believe that the scandalous revelations in the COA audit and the Napoles investigation clearly indicate that the prevailing usage of the pork barrel is incompatible to the principles this administration has time and again stood up to uphold. It leads us away from the straight path and back to a dark and corrupt past. As a leader who has unequivocally demonstrated his commitment to good governance and honest service, President Aquino must take the bull by its horns and make good on his promise to eradicate systemic corruption by abolishing the PDAF once and for all,” Bello added.

Akbayan also echoed a similar call to Congress, which is currently at the center of the scandal.

“We call on our colleagues in the House of Representatives and Senate to respond to the people’s growing clamor on this issue. The widespread and pervasive abuse of the fund revealed by the COA report are a damning indictment of the PDAF as a policy. Congress can no longer shut its eyes to how badly the PDAF has been exploited by the unscrupulous. It must act decisively against corruption and for the integrity of our institutions,” Rep. Barry Gutierrez declared.

 

Congress and the “anti-corruption consensus”

“Congress must sustain its commitment to the people’s interest by taking collective action on the PDAF. We must unite on a clear anti-corruption consensus,” Gutierrez said.

Akbayan said that while a number of lawmakers have responsibly utilized their PDAF to provide important social services and other development projects for their constituents, this cannot make up for the massive levels of PDAF-related corruption exposed by the COA audit and the Napoles scam inquiry.

“We understand the reality that millions of Filipinos suffer inadequate social services and the lack of other important programs for their welfare, and that they expect their representatives in Congress to fill in these gaps. However, this short cut to social service delivery has unfortunately been subverted by an unscrupulous few into a major thoroughfare for corruption,” Gutierrez said.

“What is clear from the recent scandal is the fact that despite existing safeguards, corrupt politicians and officials have found a way to repeatedly and massively  abuse PDAF. While a gradual phase out of the PDAF to ensure the implementation of budget reforms and the readjustment agencies’  priorities to deliver basic services to the people would have been ideal, the extent and pervasiveness of last week’s appalling revelations demand that we cut clean by doing away with the entire pork barrel fund,” Gutierrez added.

 

Radical budget reforms and FOI

Gutierrez also urged his colleagues to face the challenge of abolishing pork and put into place radical budgetary and fiscal reforms that will secure the welfare of the people.

Gutierrez emphasized that the Napoles scandal happened also partly because the bureaucacy hides the details of  spending from the scrutiny of the public, which merits the urgent passage and implementation of  a Freedom of Information Act.

“We must capitalize on the current public outrage not only to push for the abolition of PDAF but also to implement far- reaching reforms into the budget system. Top priority should be transparency and accountability – not only must the government explain to the people how the budget was spent, the people must see for themselves where the money is going and that is only possible through a Freedom of Information law,” Gutierrez said.

The other reforms Gutierrez want to introduce to the budget system are 1) institutionalization of people’s participation in the budget process, 2) control over the impoundment power of the Executive and 3) reforms in the budget savings and augmentation.

Gutierrez also expressed the need for the executive agencies to rise to the challenge and look at the more equitable distribution of social welfare services and programs.

“We cannot leave the people behind. Abolishing the pork should free up significant funding for the people, it is the duty of the executive to implement more sophisticated systems that will make the services more responsive to the needs of the millions of impoverished families all over the country,” he said.

 

“PNoy, join us”

For her part, Akbayan National Chairperson Risa Hontiveros  urged President Aquino to join the people in the call for the abolition of the PDAF, especially since the damning evidence in the Commission on Audit Report for 2007-2009 all point to anomalies done during the time of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and involved her henchmen.

“The daang matuwid, the effort to rid our government from the vestiges of corruption of the previous administration continues up to this day. Based on the recent CoA report, all fingers continue to point to Gloria and her minions. Once more, President Aquino should take a stand with the people, and this time, to get rid of the pork barrel,” Hontiveros said.

“And if the process of investigations uncover similar anomalies under the new administration, the same process of accountability must apply. That’s how we should walk the tuwid na daan,” Hontiveros added.

 

“100,000 people’s auditors”

Hontiveros said she has tasked all of her party-mates to act as “people’s auditors” to help in protecting the people’s resources from being plundered.

“I urge the President to join us in this crucial battle. I have tasked the 100,000 members of Akbayan to act as independent auditors to monitor and protect the nation’s coffers from corruption. If PNoy will join us, he will have thousands of auditors ready to do battle to cleanse the “tuwid na daan” of corrupt practices and other abuses,” Hontiveros said.

Akbayan also announced that they are refusing their current allotment of PDAF and will instead focus on cleansing the budget process through reforms.

“We are not accepting our current PDAF allocation with due apologies to all our constituents who will be affected by this decision. We have survived Arroyo’s brutal reign without the pork barrel. The only difference between then and now is the fact that real, substantive, and far-reaching reforms are possible because of the people’s conviction to cleanse the system, and the administration’s commitment to correct the sins of the past,” Hontiveros said.

“We are used to not having our share of the PDAF. As such, we will instead turn our attention to ensuring that every peso this administration spends goes directly to the people, and help ensure that the bureaucracy  provides clean, honest public service,” Hontiveros said. ###

 


A paradigm shift in resettlement policy

August 10, 2013

Posting the first ever privilege speech I delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives, just this last Wednesday, 7 August 2013.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on an issue that concerns millions of our fellow Filipinos: the issue of informal settlers, their human rights, and the Constitutional and statutorily-imposed mandate on the Philippine State to ensure that these rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled.

Ever since the ratification of the 1987 Constitution on February 2, 1986, more than a quarter of a century ago, the State has been charged with the express obligation of ensuring the rights of informal settlers – our fellow Filipinos who in a less enlightened and compassionate time were derogatorily referred to as “squatters” – and working for the betterment of their lives. Under Article XIII, Sections 9 and 10 of the Constitution, it is provided that –

“The State shall, by law, and for the common good, undertake, in cooperation with the private sector, a continuing program of urban land reform and housing which will make available at affordable cost decent housing and basic services to underprivileged and homeless citizens in urban centers and resettlement areas. It shall also promote adequate employment opportunities to such citizens. In the implementation of such program the State shall respect the rights of small property owners.

Urban or rural poor dwellers shall not be evicted nor their dwellings demolished, except in accordance with law and in a just and humane manner.”

These provisions highlight two mandates in the Philippine constitutional order. The first is the commitment of the State to undertake a continuing program of urban land reform and housing with the end view of securing affordable housing and basic services to the underprivileged. The second is the State obligation to respect and protect the right of the poor against forcible eviction.

These provisions of the Philippine Constitution were given statutory “teeth” with the enactment of Republic Act No. 7279, known as the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 (UDHA), which took effect on March 28, 1992. UDHA had two major components – the first dealt with the details of the constitutionally mandated program to provide affordable housing to the underprivileged, while the second provided protection against forcible evictions.

UDHA was intended to provide a complete solution to the problem of informal settlement by ensuring that homeless Filipinos would be provided homes by the government working hand-in-hand with the private sector. Those who had set up their dwellings in “danger zones” or areas intended for public use would be provided with safer, equally accessible, and more importantly, permanent homes at affordable cost.

Unfortunately, two decades after UDHA, reality has not lived up to the intention. As of 2011, the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) estimates that the total national housing backlog is at 3,756,072. This means that over 3.7 million Filipino families do not have safe and secure dwellings. Assuming an average family size of 5, this indicates that more than 18 million Filipinos live under these precarious conditions.

And by all indications, this backlog is growing as population increases, migration to urban centers intensifies, and the government continues to miss its annual housing targets. HUDCC estimates that the housing backlog rises by more than 195,000 every year. On the other hand, the government has only managed to provide resettlement to 235,214 families in the 14 year period from 1998 to 2011, or an average of 16,801 families per year.

And how many of these families that have been resettled actually went on to live permanently in their new neighborhoods as opposed to defaulting on their housing payments and going back to a condition of informal settlement? The alarming answer is, we do not know, since apparently government agencies have not tracked this statistic. There are numerous reports, however, from NGOs working with urban poor communities of families being forced to abandon their “new communities” – mainly because of lack of employment opportunities in the far flung relocation sites where they have been shipped off to – to go back to living in informal settlements in the cities from which they previously came.

Clearly, one of crucial issues in the government housing program, particularly in relation to the relocation of informal settlers, is sustainability.

Mr. Speaker, I have spent the better part of my professional life working as a lawyer and an advocate for the urban poor sector, and I have seen firsthand how indescribably awful the conditions in some government relocation sites are. Shoddily built, half-finished structures, without electrical power, without potable water, in remote, hard to reach areas – this unfortunately describes many of the relocation sites I have been to. It comes as no surprise to me personally, therefore, to hear about how many of our fellow Filipinos who have found themselves consigned to this dismal fate, have decided to simply go back to their previous state of informal settlement.

Recently, however, a glimmer of hope has emerged on the bleak landscape of government resettlement policy that may eventually lead the way to a more sustainable approach to the issue.

In 2011, the Aquino Administration released 10 Billion Pesos to the National Housing Authority (NHA) as the first tranche of a 50 Billion Peso fund intended to “to ensure safe and flood-resilient permanent housing solutions for Informal Settler Families (ISFs) living in Danger Areas of the National Capital Region” through a five-year resettlement program aimed at providing safe and permanent housing to the 104,219 ISFs in NCR by 2016. An additional 10 Billion Pesos was released to NHA in 2012, and 7.5 Billion Pesos was released for the same purpose earlier this year to the Socialized Housing Finance Corporation (SHFC), which brings the total fund released to 27.5 Billion Pesos since 2011.

But while, the huge allocation for this program is encouraging, the more innovative part comes from the framework adopted by the agencies involved in implementing it. Started during the term of the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, the framework, which is now expressed in a Joint Memorandum Circular (JMC) signed and adopted by the various government agencies working with the program, mandates that resettlement sites should be on-site, or, in situations where this is not possible, in-city. Furthermore, the resettlement should be conducted in accordance with a “people’s plan,” a proposal developed by the community being relocated itself, with the assistance of concerned government agencies.

The official adoption of an “on-site, in-city” policy governing resettlement, and the primary role given to the “people’s plan” in implementation, are extremely significant and groundbreaking steps that will likely prove to be crucial innovations in ensuring the sustainability of future resettlement projects. The on-site, in-city paradigm ensures continued access of ISFs to their employment and a market for their microenterprises, while the institutionalization of the people’s plan process ensures a level of participation and, more importantly, ownership of the program that will make ISFs active partners in the initiative instead of simply being passive subjects to the same. Both contribute greatly to enhancing sustainability, and ultimately, viability of the resettlement program.

In fact, Mr. Speaker, if I may venture to suggest, these two policies – on-site, in-city relocation and the reference to a people’s plan – instead of just being expressed in an executive issuance, should be considered for institutionalization through inclusion in a new statute.

But much as I would like to end on this hopeful note, I feel compelled to express my concern with the future implementation of these two crucial, one might even say revolutionary, new policies adopted in the JMC, in the light of a news article that came out two days ago in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It would be most unfortunate, in my view, that just as a new hope for future sustainability of the government housing program springs forth, that same hope would be nipped in the bud before being given a chance to fully bloom.

The article, entitled “Relocation of estero families on,” written by Niña Calleja, Marlon Ramos, and Nathaniel Melican, talks about the impending relocation of 606 ISFs in San Juan, and 871 more in Quezon City as part of the implementation of the program I mentioned before. This is part of the phase of the program which aims to relocate 19,440 ISFs within the next 12 months.

My concern stems from the fact that while the article, which quotes several department and agency heads involved in the program, talks about the numbers, the funding, and other details, it makes no mention of the JMC, which governs the relocation process under the program, or the two key policies I highlighted: on-site, in-city relocation, and the people’s plan. In fact, the article expressly mentioned that the first batch of ISFs would be moved to San Jose del Monte, Bulacan – a fine place, to be sure, but clearly not on-site or in-city.

Of course, it is difficult, not to mention ill-advised, to make snap judgments on policy implementation on the basis of a single news article – which, to be fair, mentioned that the move was “voluntary” – but still, it is somewhat disturbing that this early in the program’s implementation, with the ink barely dry on the JMC, that there is already an apparent lack of emphasis on two of its most important, and most significant, policy innovations. Time will tell whether this was mere inadvertence or something more serious.

In the meantime, Mr. Speaker, it only underscores the need to continue to monitor implementation of this program, and to take the necessary steps to further strengthen, and possibly, enshrine these principles into our government’s framework for the socialized housing program.

We will continue to watch, and to work. The millions of our fellow Filipinos who still continue to dream of having their own homes, in living sustainable communities, deserve no less.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker and good afternoon.

 

 


A thank you, both early and late

May 22, 2013

The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) still has to officially proclaim the winners in the 2013 party list race, but with Akbayan already tallying more than 820,000 votes with 95% of the certificates of canvass counted, it seems safe (or perhaps relatively safe) to say that we will once again get two House seats in 16th Congress.

What this means for me personally is that I will probably, PROBABLY, get to serve as a Representative when the 16th Congress opens in July.

I say probably because, until the COMELEC’s official proclamation, no matter how conclusive the numbers seem to be, all this is still speculative. Well-founded speculation, maybe, but still speculation. And this whole “you’ve-won-but-not-yet-officially” situation has actually been one of my problems since last week, when the election results first started trickling in. Friends, colleagues, relatives, and well-meaning acquaintances have sent congratulatory messages, people I’ve bumped into have started calling me “Cong” (truly cringe-worthy, trust me), all under the assumption that this is a done thing. Make no mistake, I deeply appreciate the sentiment, but I hesitate to tempt fate, no matter how clear fate’s will seems to be at this point. Maybe I’ve just read too many Greek tragedies.

Still, the almost-but-not-quite certainty of Akbayan’s electoral victory in the 2013 party list elections should be occasion enough, in my opinion, for me to start expressing my most profound thanks to everyone who gave of their time, talent, effort, and resources to support the campaign.

One thing which I realized early on in the campaign, is that running for public office is all about the support and help from others. It’s not about how smart, eloquent, charming, or individually amazing you are (not that I was ever really any of these things) but how much support you are able to get from your party-mates, colleagues, friends, family, and ultimately, fellow citizens. In the end, it comes down to all these people DECIDING that they will trust you, and/or your party, with their vote.

It actually amazes me that despite this obvious truth about elective office — that it is, quite literally, owed to the support of others — the majority of our elected officials continue to act as if they acquired their positions due to their own individual greatness. That they were somehow entitled to the honor of being called “Mayor” or “Governor” or “Senator” or “Congressman.” I guess the trappings of office have an unequaled power to delude, and that is why, this early, I’m already hoping I don’t get too used to being called “Cong.”

So lest I forget to give credit where it well and truly belongs, let me now say, thank you, guys, for everything. To the members, campaign workers, volunteers, and allies of Akbayan, who worked without monetary compensation, without sleep, and without selfish expectations, thank you. To my comrades in the parallel campaign team, for the endless meetings, the hard work, and the beer, thank you. To my friends, classmates, colleagues, and former students, who gave of their time, their talent, and their checkbooks to support Akbayan despite being saddled with the not inconsiderable disadvantage of actually personally KNOWING one of the nominees, thank you. To my family — and that includes all the titas and titos, ninongs and ninangs I’ve had through the years — for putting up with this, for being there when I needed you, thank you. To Maya, Aemon, and Arya, without whom none of this would even be possible, thank you. And of course, to my fellow Filipinos who decided to put their trust in Akbayan for the sixth straight party list elections. thank you.

Giving thanks is the easy part. The harder, and more important part, is of course, living up to the mandate Akbayan has been fortunate enough to be entrusted with. One other thing that I realized during the grind of the bone wearying, back breaking 90-day national campaign is that a great thing about running under the party list is the opportunity to go EVERYWHERE and to meet Filipinos from all walks of life. I know that the campaign was principally supposed to be a chance for us to introduce Akbayan to voters, but I came to see that, perhaps even more significantly, it was also a chance to learn from our fellow citizens, to listen to the humbling, tragic, astounding, heartbreaking, appalling, thought-provoking, inspiring, genuine stories they have to tell.

More than the speeches or the handshakes or the motorcades this campaign, for me, will always be about these stories. The issues that we will hopefully take up on the floor of the House of Representatives will each have its own tale. Universal Health Care will be about the woman in Trece Martires, doing her best to provide and comfort and dignity, with the limited means available to her, to a husband dying of cancer. Agrarian reform will be about the mother in Iloilo so inured to tragedy that she spoke casually about how her son was chased into the mountains and murdered by thugs in the employ of a local landlord. Indigenous people’s rights will be about the tribal chieftain in General Santos, a mix of anger and helplessness in his eyes, as he spoke of his tribe’s difficulties in claiming their ancestral land.

When I look past the COMELEC count and to the months of work that possibly lie ahead, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed. How do you even begin to do justice to these stories? How do you even start to earn the trust given to Akbayan?

I certainly do not have all the answers yet. But I look forward to learning. To working. To trying. And to believing.

Thanks guys, for the opportunity.


Statement during the Akbayan Press Conference, 16 October 2012

October 16, 2012

My (disrupted) statement at the Akbayan Press Conference on 16 October 2012. Got through the first nine paragraphs before hooliganism reared its ugly head. Finished the last three paragraphs, with their ironically appropriate message of mutual respect and cooperation, after the ruckus had died down.

And yes, I continue to believe we can, and should, work together, rather than trying to pull each other down.

—-

First off, I would like to congratulate our brave Bangsamoro brothers and sisters, as well as our determined peace negotiators for forging that most elusive peace agreement. There are lessons to be learned from all this and I will go back to that later. For now, I would like all of us to pause for a few moments and reflect on how important this peace is to our nation.

Imagine a Mindanao without war. Last year, most of us would have said that it was impossible. But now here we are. And I say it is great to be a Filipino in these extraordinary times. The future is exploding with possibility for this country.

Of course, we still have that Cybercrime Prevention Law to take care of. Akbayan is not taking it lying down. Media is not taking it lying down. And best of all, neither are hordes of new freedom activists online taking it lying down. Last week, Akbayan, through Congressman Walden Bello already filed a bill repealing cyberlibel and the other, equally onerous provisions of the controversial law. I guess we have Congress and Pnoy to thank for getting people to fight for their right to freedom of expression. That is the way democracy works after all. “If it’s good, it’s really good. And even when it’s bad, it’s still good.” I think I first heard that from Nelson Mandela he spoke at the University of the Philippines in 1997. I just took out the sex part.

Anyway, back to the topic in hand. There was a time when we would have been on the warpath the moment Anakbayan and the KMU called for Akbayan to be disqualified from the party-list system. They’re wrong, and again I’ll get back to this in a bit, but they did get one thing right: that Akbayan, after all, is no longer the political party that it once was.

Indeed, Akbayan has come a long way from being just a vehicle of marginalized sectors that had to scramble for precious votes come election time. Well, medyo nakausad-usad na kami sa Akbayan, though we will still be scrambling for votes next year. Kailangan pa rin naming kumayod at magtrabaho just like any group in the party-list.

Akbayan takes pride in being in a stronger position right now compared to when all our student activists, women advocates, trade unions, overseas workers, peasant organizations, fisherfolk, urban poor groups, LGBTs, and professionals came together to put up Akbayan in January 1998. Back then, we were only hoping to get into Congress. Now, we have two seats in the House of Representatives and are aiming to get the full complement. We call that hard work.

Akbayan also has this very, very small number of people in the executive. Anakbayan and the KMU have been very good to point them out, me included. But as of October 5, isa na akong former government employee. In fact, I am now officially unemployed, unless you count being Akbayan spokesperson as employment. So if you know of any available jobs out there, call me, maybe?

The way Anakbayan and the KMU see it, Akbayan individuals getting appointive positions in the executive is tantamount to mortal sin. Isang di mapapatawad na kasalanan. It isn’t mortal sin. It’s called coalition work. It is difficult but necessary for any contender in the party-list system. Therein lies progress, not only for Akbayan’s constituency, but for all marginalized sectors as well.

At this point I must insist on a reality check for Anakbayan and KMU. They simply overestimate the amount of influence Akbayan supposedly wields inside the Aquino government at this point. Mukhang naniniwala ata sila sa binanggit ni dating Chief Justice Corona na hawak naming sa leeg ang Presidente. Hindi po totoo yun. Akbayan is hardly the power behind the throne. Akbayan people within the executive are more like conscientious government employees, with low salaries and lots of work. Hard workers all and eager to serve. Our small presence in the current government has not changed who we fundamentally are – a party of citizens and activists coming from various sectors doing what we can to help build a better society, a better nation not only for the marginalized groups we represent but for all Filipinos.

RA 7941, or the party list law, never intended that parties representing the marginalized be forever barred from entering government, that would be self defeating. Those that do, though, should always continue to remain true to the interests of the sectors that they represent. And in it’s 14 years of existence, Akbayan has striven to do precisely this, in Congress, in government, and in the citizens’ movements to which it proudly traces its roots. And ultimately, this IS the spirit that animates the entire concept of the party list system and the party list law.

I am sure that all progressive forces within the party-list system share the same hope for this country, it’s just that our history, our failed political relationships, keep on getting in the way of our working together in the here and now. But I continue to hope and to wish that in my lifetime, we—Akbayan, Anakbayan, KMU, Kabataan, Bayan Muna, or what have you—will be able to finally dampen our differences, treat one another other with respect, and cooperate in ways that will benefit the sectors that form our political parties.

The Bangsamoro and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines
just did the impossible. So there is hope for us yet.


On Human Rights and Impunity

August 22, 2012

Uploading the link to a video of my talk on Human Rights and Impunity, during the UP Academic Congress in February 2010.

http://dilc.upd.edu.ph/index.php/eve/458-addressing-impunity